Art Herstory

Discrimination in the art world is not a new topic, and since the second wave of feminism, more focus has been placed on discrimination against women artists. (The second wave of feminism is usually associated with the 1960s–70s push for equal rights, addressing a variety of issues that included reproductive rights, equal pay, and the Equal Rights Amendment. The first wave of feminism is usually associated with the suffrage movement and property rights.) In the late 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of artists and activists, began tackling the issue of the lack of women in galleries and museums. As the years went on they expanded their mission to include artists of color.

NMWA visitors viewing The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back

NMWA visitors viewing The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back

By 1995, the Guerrilla Girls saw that women artists were getting some recognition in galleries and museums. However, the Girls believed that this new spotlight was often motivated by tokenism, instead of a genuine effort toward equality or recognizing unseen artists. As the idea of multiculturalism became part of mainstream thinking, museums and galleries adopted tokenism. Tokenism is any policy that only minimally complies with rules, laws, or public pressure; for example, allowing one woman to join a men’s organization. Usually the token member of a group does not have an equal vote, say, or the same presence as the other members, they are there mainly for the purpose of showing that the group is including minorities.

Image of Top ten ways to tell if you're an art world token, 1995.

Guerrilla Girls, Top ten ways to tell if you're an art world token, 1995. Photolithograph on paper, 17 x 22 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; © Guerrilla Girls.

The Guerrilla Girls approached this new tokenism in the art world with their classic sense of humor. The Girls’s poster Top Ten Signs You’re an Art World Token lists just some of the ways for people to identify whether or not they are indeed tokens. These items range from the timing of shows (galleries showing women artists only during women’s history month, for example) to the way people treat you (as in always telling you their interracial and gay sexual fantasies). The poster also addresses the idea that token artists speak for their entire gender, race, or sexual orientation, something that we would never ask of a white, straight, male artist.

To see Top Ten Signs You’re an Art World Token: poster and more than 70 other protest pieces by the Guerrilla Girls, visit The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back on the second floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, on view through October 2.

 —Sarah Reck is a development intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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